GENRE: End-of-days allegory, sans Viggo Mortensen
THE PITCH: In a post-literate American wasteland, a savage town’s vicious leader named Carnegie (Gary Oldman, channeling the likes of Bruce Dern and Dean Stockwell) pursues drifter Eli (reliably stalwart Denzel Washington) for his mysterious book. It’s stylishly directed by the Hughes brothers, so think Menace II Post-Apocalyptic Society.
MONEY SHOTS: Eli swiftly dispatches a band of hijackers while silhouetted in a tunnel. Eli blasts Carnegie’s henchman during a Main Street shoot-out worthy of John Wayne. Young hottie Solara (Mila Kunis) tosses an explosive to fend off bad guys on wheels. The last act features a trashed national monument, in timeless end-of-the-world movie tradition.
BEST LINE: Eli makes a statement on faith and Solara asks, “Is that from the book.” “No,” he replies, “It’s Johnny Cash, Life From Folsom Prison.”
LEAST CREATIVE LINE: “I don’t want any trouble,” says Eli, which is what the strong, silent hero-types always say right before they start kicking ass. Speaking of which …
BODY COUNT: Almost 30, including multiple decapitations, a severed hand and arrows through the throat and crotch. Plus, a bird and one of those hairless Mr. Bigglesworth cats become supper.
CAMEOS: The suddenly ubiquitous Tom Waits does a nice job with a tiny role as a fix-it guy. Jennifer “Flashdance” Beals plays Carnegie’s blind mistress. A deceptively nice old couple named George and Martha are played by Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour (the pairing of which suggests that Dumbledore and Madame Maxime became an item).
FASHION STATEMENT: An atmospheric disaster has cranked the sun (or maybe the ozone layer) to “extra crispy,” so everyone sports either oversized goggles or cool sunglasses. Most characters wear Mad Max castoffs, but Kunis’ outfit looks so spotless and contemporary, it’s like she’s en route to an Earth Day photo-op in an old-growth forest.
PRODUCT PLACEMENT: Those little moist towlettes from KFC become a viable form of currency. A trashed Busch beer truck is visible in the background of one scene.
SOUNDTRACK HIGHLIGHT: A hand-cranked phonograph incongruously plays “Ring My Bell.” At one point, head goon Ray Stevenson whistles one of Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western themes.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The Hughes brothers groove on the Western and Road Warrior-style action tropes for the grimly enjoyable first half. Despite your hopes that the portentous book will be something surprising (like maybe The Joy of Sex or a Calvin and Hobbes collection), the film takes such a heavy-handed religious turn that The Book of Eli feels like one of those Left Behind adaptations. At least the early scenes are exciting in all the ways that The Road wasn’t.
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